Tara Lambert had looks to kill —and that's exactly what she planned to do.
The tall, lithe woman with her genie ponytail and low-cut T-shirt opened the passenger door of the Monte Carlo parked in the Kentucky Fried Chicken lot and slid into the front seat.
The stranger sitting behind the wheel hid his eyes behind sunglasses. Wearing an American flag T-shirt, he reached over the console with a tattooed arm to offer a handshake.
And then he got right to it.
"What's going on with you? I hear you have a problem."
Tara Lambert giggled and gave her ponytail a flip. "I've had a problem for seven years."
That problem, as far as Lambert was concerned, was named Kellie Cooke, the mother of Lambert's two teenage stepdaughters. Years of acrimony had come to a head during a hearing to resolve visitation rights a week earlier, and it hadn't gone well for Lambert and her husband.
So on the very afternoon of that court appearance, with one private Facebook message to an old high school friend she suspected-hoped-might know some unsavory characters, Lambert set into motion a pulp-fiction plan the likes of which few from the tiny town of Circleville had ever seen.
Lambert wanted Cooke dead and was willing to pay an assassin to do it. Instead, she'll spend the next seven years in prison after a jury found her guilty of conspiring to commit aggravated murder.
* * *
At 5:32 p.m. on July 28, according to police surveillance tapes, Lambert-after telling her husband Brandon she was going shopping-headed for the KFC parking lot, where she gave the tattooed man a bank envelope holding $125 in cash, a down payment for murder. "I need her away. Gone. Uncommunicative," Lambert said.
When the man asked Lambert what she wanted done to Cooke, she told him, "Oh my God. Just put her in a chopper, you know like one of those lumberjack chopper things."
The man deadpanned, "Well, I don't carry around a lumberjack chopper."
Lambert giggled. "I'm just kidding."
Then she stopped laughing. "That's how much I hate her, though."
In the shadow of a Wal-Mart sign, with people carting buckets of fried chicken and containers of mashed potatoes to their cars, they finalized the plans for the murder of Cooke, a 32-year-old school bus driver, wife and mother of four, the youngest still a baby.
The whole transaction took less than 10 minutes.
Lambert clapped in delight and told the man, "I'm gonna be so excited, I just can't even tell you. I'm so happy."
She got out of the car, and as she slipped into her Lexus parked one spot over, the driver of the Monte Carlo said aloud to seemingly no one in particular, "I assume you guys got all that?"
Brandon Lambert and Kellie Cooke were never married, but after their relationship ended, they both tried hard to get along for their girls' sake, even as Kellie married Shawn Cooke and Brandon married Tara.
But as the girls got older and became more involved in sports and school, things grew more complicated. Kellie Cooke had permanent custody of her girls and lived two counties south of the Lamberts. Keeping visitation schedules intact was getting harder. Many trips to court followed, resulting in contempt orders, lawyer-monitored emails and visitation exchanges at police and sheriffs' departments.
It was, Shawn Cooke says, a mess, one that always seemed to center on Tara Lambert. "She'd been planting seeds of trouble everywhere she went. She called all the shots," he says. "When you are strong enough to manipulate someone out of their own kids' lives, you've got some superpowers. Not good ones."
It was March 2015, prosecutors say, when things turned menacing. That's when Lambert reached out to Ginny Cheadle, a classmate from their days at Teays Valley High School. They had never run in the same circles, but this is Small Town USA, the kind of place where people don't subscribe to the old adage "you can't go home again" because here, the truth is, you never really leave.
Reconnecting was easy. Cheadle had a reputation for never backing away from a fight if someone she knew was wronged, And Lambert had a reputation for sweet-talking people-especially those eager to please-into getting her way. "She wanted me to pretty much scare the woman," said Cheadle. "So I did."
On March 27, she blocked her phone number and called Cooke. "I told her to leave Tara alone or I was gonna beat her up," Cheadle would later tell a Pickaway County jury. She told Cooke by the time she was done beating her, she'd be in the hospital with a feeding tube and not even her own children would recognize her. Cooke went to the police, but no one was ever charged.
Cheadle said that was only the beginning: "Tara told me when I made that call for her that if she could get away with it, she'd murder that woman."
* * *
Lambert, 33, grew up in the Pickaway County village of Ashville, just over the Franklin County line, and it was there that she nurtured her small-town dreams of big-city fame. Websites more than a decade old still show some of the aspiring model's earliest photo shoots, complete with comments from her online onlookers.
Tara, from one of your biggest fans, you are awesome. I've enjoyed working with you and watching your progress as a model. I'm looking forward to working with you more and following your success.
Tara is a "very beautiful person" inside and out. Her outward beauty far exceeds the beauty of the most precious rose and her inner beauty far exceeds the beauty of a million roses.
You look awesome, and I'm sure you'll make it as far as you want.
But not everyone was kind, especially about the more revealing photos, the ones with bare breasts covered only by her hands and hip bones peeking out from sexy lingerie.
I didn't know posing like a whore was the proper step to make your modeling dreams come true!!
Why don't you have some respect for yourself and your family?
Those likely cut deep. Lambert testified in Pickaway County Common Pleas Court in January, where she was on trial on two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, that she has long had eating disorders and body-image issues. "I needed to change myself, my looks," she said, adding that she has had more than 20 cosmetic surgeries and procedures, including work on her legs, stomach, butt and breasts.
Central Ohio psychologist Dr. Jolie Brams called it "body dysmorphia" — obsessing over flaws whether real or imagined. Good is never enough.
Pickaway County Prosecutor Judy Wolford said it all was bunk.
"I think Tara Lambert has gotten by on her good looks for so long that she's learned how to get people to do whatever she wants," Wolford told the jury. "She's not crazy. She's just manipulating and controlling enough to always get her way."
* * *
Cheadle said she knew exactly what was happening on July 21 when she got another message from Lambert: "Do you know anyone hard up for cash who can take care of our issue?"
Cheadle went right to authorities.
Lt. Dale Parish, commander of the Pickaway County sheriff's department's detective bureau, has more than four decades of law enforcement experience. A sergeant called him at home at about 11 p.m. to fill him in.
"That lit me up like a Roman candle," he said of the late-night call.
The next morning, detectives huddled. "It was about saving a life," says Pickaway County Sheriff Robert Radcliff. "Ginny Cheadle did the right thing and came to us. But what if Tara Lambert was talking to somebody else and they didn't care so much? Kellie Cooke was one missed step away from being murdered."
Radcliff called in the Franklin County sheriff's office Special Investigations Unit for help.
Over the next six days, there were five recorded phone conversations between Cheadle and Lambert. The first was on July 23.
"Well, I have somebody that might be able to help you out," Cheadle told Lambert.
Lambert replied: "Do you know how much I'd love that?"
Talk of payment and a plan followed. "If we want it to go all the way, then I want it to look like an accident, obviously, because of what I've gone through with her," Lambert told Cheadle. "I would be the first suspect, I'm sure."
Eventually, they agreed to meet on July 28, and Cheadle told Lambert to bring a down payment on what will end up being a $1,000 murder that would never take place. "I can make that happen," Lambert said. "I can't freakin' wait."
Cheadle says her "friend" was thinking maybe he would tie Cooke up and make it look like a home invasion gone wrong. "I'm going to, like, have an orgasm in my car just thinking about it," Lambert said. "I've never hated someone this bad."
* * *
That same day, Kellie Cooke was at home in Scioto County with her 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter; the two teenage girls were at soccer practice and Shawn was at work even as, back in Circleville, Lambert pulled into the KFC.
The shopping plaza was crawling with deputies, detectives and cops. The locals were in unmarked cars outside Bob Evans and Buffalo Wild Wings. Radcliff was at Tim Horton's. Undercover deputies from Franklin County were sprinkled about, and Circleville police officers were cruising by.
Lt. Parish is gruff and old-school, a detective who drawls every word in a baritone that calls to mind good ol' boys smoking cigars and drinking bourbon while talking shop. When he is asked about that night, he drops his chin and peers over his glasses: "That woman," he says, jabbing a finger into the air, "is truly afemme fatale. Don't let her looks fool you. She is vicious. And she was entirely capable of pulling off a murder plan."
A small army of law enforcement watched and waited as Lambert began negotiating the death of Kellie Cooke with a stranger who, it turned out, was no hit man at all, but instead was deputy Sanford Crayton, who has spent 22 years with the Franklin County sheriff's office, 17 of them undercover. Chief Deputy Rick Minerd says Crayton is among his best. "We knew enough about what they had," Minerd said, "to know that this was going to be good."
Minerd said the sheriff's office investigates maybe four or five cases of murder-for-hire a year, and they are generally rooted in money: business gone sour or a drug-deal double-cross. They are usually nothing but talk. Someone says they want another person killed, and when it comes time to finalize it, they're out.
But the Lambert case intrigued everyone from the start. "I don't mean to stereotype, but I think we were all kind of like, 'What the heck?' when we saw this young, gorgeous blonde with a family and a decent job," Minerd said. "She was not what we expected."
They all watched that day as Lambert paid a man for murder — she had told him to just go ahead and kill Shawn Cooke, too, if he happened to be home — and then went shopping. A Franklin County deputy in street clothes followed her into Wal-Mart. "It's not like she was struggling with what she'd just done," Radcliff said. "She went prancing in like she didn't have a care in the world."
Eventually, she pushed a full cart toward the double doors: a big bag of Royal dog food, some Kibbles 'n Bits, bottled water and protein bars, Alka-Seltzer and cough syrup, a happy birthday card. As the doors slid open just after 6 p.m. and Lambert strolled out into the sunlight, cruisers swooped in from both directions and arrested her.
A short time later, as detective Rex Emrick interrogated her at the Pickaway County sheriff's office — where she said she would "swear on a Bible or whatever" that she only wanted Cooke hurt, not dead — detective Casey Thress, Parish and Radcliff headed to Scioto County. The time had come to tell Shawn and Kellie Cooke. "I was not shocked," Kellie Cooke said. Lambert had unsuccessfully visited a fertility specialist; she couldn't have children. "I think she wanted our kids," Kellie Cooke said. "I was not surprised that she wanted us dead."
* * *
Inside the packed Pickaway County Common Pleas courtroom, people talked behind their hands and shook their heads.
Have you seen what she's wearing?
My God. Those shoes.
Who does she think she is?
Lambert faced as many as 22 years in prison if convicted of both charges, yet her appearance was stunningly well put together, her hair and makeup simply flawless. Wearing animal prints and tight-fitting dresses with thigh-high slits, carrying a Coach purse on the same arm that sported an Apple smartwatch, she radiated confidence. The courtroom appeared to be her stage.
She always knew where the cameras were, and she approached the Columbus Dispatch photographer each day and raised a foot to offer him a close-up of her designer stilettos. During a break, she texted the local salon to schedule a spa day for when the trial was over. Her lawyer, James Kingsley, is a former county prosecutor. Animated and sporting a customary bow tie, he's known to be a courtroom showman who goes hard for his clients.
And, as one courtroom observer noted, he was earning every penny that Lambert — who, until she was arrested, worked for the American Heart Association and apparently dabbled in cleaning houses and property flipping — was paying him.
His client had a bit of the theater in her, too. She also is animated. She has a propensity for using air quotes, but in a weird, Richard Nixon victory sign kind of way. She ends most sentences with a wave of a hand and a blah blah blah blah blah. She has perfected both the seductive head-tilt and the do-you-see-me glance.
In court she appeared alternately bored, relaxed and annoyed. She lounged like a cat. With an arm stretched across the back of the chair, and one crossed leg swinging in seeming nonchalance, she would dramatically, slowly, turn her head toward her younger sister and lazily smile. There was even an occasional wink.
Whether real or an act, not everyone bought what she was selling. It took the jury of eight men and four women just 42 minutes to reach a verdict. One juror said later that the minute they walked in to begin deliberations, they knew that not one of the 12 had any doubt of her guilt when it came to Kellie Cooke. They acquitted her, though, of plotting to kill Shawn Cooke. That, it seemed, had been a spur-of-the-moment afterthought.
A month later, on Feb. 27, she still commanded all the attention as she reappeared in court for sentencing. She told the corrections officers at the county jail that she would get probation. She said she was going home that day, and had her attorney ask Pickaway County Common Pleas Judge P. Randall Knece if she could wear makeup and street clothes to court. He refused.
The shackles on her ankles meant she shuffled rather than strutted into court, this time wearing thermal underwear, red jailhouse scrubs and orange rubber Crocs. But her defiant attitude remained. She shook her head, made faces and swore as Kellie and Shawn Cooke cried and told the judge how their family has been forever changed.
"Every car door, every dog bark, every single sound put us on edge in our own home," Shawn Cooke said. "Imagine the fear we live with daily. There is no amount of time, therapy or repentance that can fix the damage."
When it was her turn to speak, she read an emotionless apology to the Cookes. Then, she turned to the judge and, for the first time, her voice quivered: "While the jury was told not to consider mercy, I hope that this court can consider it. I fear that I will not receive proper mental health treatment while in prison."
As Knece called her selfish and out of control, she rolled her eyes and interrupted him. When he told her she would spend the next seven years in prison, she looked shocked for the first time. "Oh my gosh," she muttered.
Yet her recovery was swift. As the deputy escorted her from the courtroom and walked her past the rows of reporters, Lambert lifted a shoulder, gave her now stringy and greasy hair a toss and looked right into the cameras. She almost smiled.